Do you grow your own food? Vegetables maybe? Herbs? Fruit? How about mushrooms? Actually, the processes of cultivating fungi are only recently being developed and understood but they may just be one of the most important food types to learn about – highly nutritious but also crucial for the health of our soils and ecosystems.
On Sunday 7th July 2019 a few of us from Leytonstone joined other participants from across London and beyond at Cecil Sharp House in Camden for the annual London Permaculture Festival. It was the first time I’d attended, and I felt like a kid in a sweet shop with so many fascinating talks to choose from. One that made a particular impression, though, was David Satori’s presentation on growing medicinal mushrooms.
David describes himself as an organic gardener, mycologist, activist and teacher. His London-based organisation Myceliate (www.myceliate.org) encourages mushroom cultivation as a way to improve poor and contaminated urban soils. It turns out that fungi are more interesting and more crucial to our collective future than I had ever imagined.
The mushrooms we see – whether sprouting from an old tree stump or popping up in the lawn – are just the fruiting part of a huge underground organism – the mycelium. Gardeners are aware of the importance of these underground webs in the form of ‘mycorrhyzal fungi’ which help the roots of plants to extract nutrients from the soil. Fungi are also needed to help break down dead and rotting plant material like fallen trees. There are even, David told us, varieties of fungus that can break down petrochemicals, and these are now beginning to be used in polluted areas to remove contamination and bring land back into healthy cultivation.
Mushrooms are also hugely valuable to us as a food source, and have been used by many cultures around the world in traditional medicine. Of course, not all are edible and it’s essential to be totally confident in your identification of a mushroom before risking eating it. But those that are edible, are rich in prebiotics that support our gut health; many support or boost the immune system, and there is increasing scientific evidence for other benefits like repairing nerve cells and improving memory.
As with so many things, though, just as we need them more than ever, fungi are under threat. The nutrient balance they need is different to that of other cultivated plants, requiring a higher ratio of carbon to nitrogen. Modern agriculture that relies heavily on artificially adding nitrogen to the soil, creates an environment that inhibits fungal growth and this in turn depletes the richness of the soil. This is, of course, yet another reason to move away from intensive farming toward more organic methods.
Mushrooms, David explained, can be grown at home either in containers indoors or on hardwood logs in the garden. Oyster mushrooms are the easiest species to start with, and can be grown indoors in a tub filled with a mixture of shredded cardboard and used coffee grounds. The tub is kept warm and dark until the underground mycelium has fully developed, after which autumn is simulated by moving the tub somewhere cooler and misting daily with water through a hole in the lid, which after about a week should prompt a cluster of mushrooms to emerge through the hole. Website ‘Gourmet Woodland Mushrooms’ (www.gourmetmushrooms.co.uk) sells the ‘spawn’ that is needed to start the process (similar to using kefir grains, or a starter yeast in breadmaking). They also sell complete kits for indoor growing and their website includes a wealth of information to guide you through the process.
Have you tried growing mushrooms at home? Do let us know how you got on, and pass on any tips. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for someone to go into partnership with a local coffee shop to reuse coffee grounds and set up Leytonstone’s very own mushroom farm?!